Looking back on nearly fifty years as a political journalist, there is no doubt in my mind that the power and influence of the British news media has shaped the politics of the UK – far more so, I would say, than in other European countries.
While the argument continues about the validity of Kelvin Mackenzie’s infamous 1992 general election headline, “It’s the Sun Wot Won it”, I do believe that favourable media coverage has in the past helped turn the certainty of victory into a landslide.
When journalists decide en masse to vote “C” for change – and when the media has decided that the outgoing government has had its day – that does become a formidable force.
This phenomenon isn’t new. Harold Wilson won the 1964 general election – admittedly by the narrowest of margins – with the help of the Daily Mirror. Cecil King, then chairman of the International Publishing Corporation, claimed that it was the Mirror’s “intense and extremely effective” propaganda for the Labour Party which first got into Wilson into Downing Street.
And it is worth pointing out that in the 1960s the IPC group under Cecil King controlled 40 per cent of the sales of national newspapers, the very same market share that was under Rupert Murdoch’s control prior to the closure of the News of the World.
In the early and mid 1980s we saw how Margaret Thatcher was all powerful, not least because she had the near-unanimous backing of the press.
Get that right: almost unquestioning support from most national newspapers and an overwhelming Parliamentary majority – remember Mrs Thatcher’s landslide in 1983 after the Falklands War – and the Prime Minister of the day really is all powerful. She proved that a year later in her defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984.
Equally once that press support is lost – and turns to ridicule – Prime Ministers know their days are numbered. Ask James Callaghan who lost to the Conservatives after the 1979 winter of discontent or John Major who faced desperate odds in 1997, after eighteen years of Tory government.
Looking back no one now doubts that a Labour victory in 1997 was a certainty – but it was Tony Blair’s brilliant manipulation of the news media, aided abetted by the likes of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, which turned that into a rout and an unprecedented Labour victory.
This all helps to explain why David Cameron was so desperate to employ – and then retain – the services of the ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson. Cameron needed to re-connect the Tory party to the news agenda of tabloid newspapers and who better to do that than Coulson.
Of course, Murdoch also had a commercial agenda – his aim was that News Corporation should secure total control of BSkyB, an objective that was dashed once the phone hacking scandal went nuclear after the discovery that messages left on the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler were among those intercepted and even deleted.
I did not know then how significant this would all be. But I did devote a chapter of my 2010 general election book to the Conservatives’ behind-the-scenes manoeuvring to persuade the Murdoch press to switch sides, to dump Gordon Brown and start promoting Cameron.
Another important illustration of media power from the 2010 general election was the emergence of Nick Clegg. Without the televised debates – and all the online chatter and all instant opinion polls – Clegg would never have achieved the prominence which he did.
The Liberal Democrats’ election result was a disaster but on the back of his exposure in the media Clegg had acquired an unprecedented status for a post-war Lib Dem leader.
His phenomenal rise – do you remember that opinion poll which suggested he was the most popular party leader since Winston Churchill – owed a great deal to the internet and the online campaign which was whipped up in his support. That did influence how Clegg was perceived by political journalists.
That was a sign of the times: it wasn’t the newspapers but an army of online insurgents who turned the tide in Clegg’s favour and gave him all important clout when it came to negotiating with Brown and Cameron.
But the phone hacking scandal and demise of the Murdoch family has been a game changer. When you combine that with the catastrophic decline in newspaper sales, I don’t think a media magnate will achieve – or even be allowed to exercise – the kind of power and influence wielded previously by the News International newspapers.
Yes the tabloid press will go on being able to influence and sometimes command the news agenda but the spell has been broken. Politicians won’t allow any media company to have the reach or market share built up by Rupert Murdoch. I don’t think the electorate would wear it if we saw a Prime Minister hob-knobbing again with the likes of Rupert and James Murdoch or Rebekah Brooks. And don’t forget it wasn’t just Cameron, but Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher et al who danced to their tune.
The other factor which has changed the dynamics is the emergence of online pressure groups like 38 Degrees or its American counterpart Avaaz which has ten million followers worldwide.
They can mobilise tens of thousands of online insurgents who can bombard ministers with comments and submissions. Just look at their recent scalps:
· A U-turn on the sale of the nation’s forests.
· Their ability to gum up Jeremy Hunt’s department and slow down and eventually help frustrate Murdoch’s bid for control of BSkyB.
· Or the success of the Hacked Off campaign in forcing David Cameron to ask Lord Justice Leveson to hold a far more searching inquiry into phone hacking and media ownership than was ever envisaged in the first place.
So my conclusion: I would not go as far as to say that the media governs the country, but I would argue that without the support of the media – dare I say consent of the media – governments can and do lose their authority and eventually face defeat.
Speech to Woodstock Literary Festival 18.9.2011